Oregon was 40 hours from western Kansas by train, a long ride to endure in one shot. The train went straight to Denver, then jogged north to Cheyenne and west. Some of the mountain scenery was beautiful, and helped to break up the long trip. The final leg into Portland along the Columbia River Gorge was one of the more spectacular rides in the country. I knapped in the station in Portland an hour or so, then caught a connecting train into Corvallis. I knew nobody in town. Classes didn’t start for several days, so I had time to look around campus, report to the Commanding Officer at the Navy Unit, and find a place to stay during pledge week. Sigma Phi Epsilon had been told of my pledge at Kansas, and included me among their freshman pledge class. It was to be my home for the next two years.
The Sig Ep house was a short two-block walk from north campus, where most of my classes were held. The campus was not large with fewer than 6,000 students. The farthest point on campus from the fraternity was ten minutes on foot. The downtown section was an equally short distance to the east, making it possible to hoof-it anywhere in town. The weather in Corvallis was a complete surprise. Around mid-October, it started to drizzle, not rain but drizzle. I had arrived from the western prairie without any rainwear. In Kansas when it rains you wait till it goes away then continue your business. I waited three months. Then I learned it would probably drizzle until April. Six months of drizzle is a perfect climate for studying, but not much else.
The Sig Eps were a fascinating bunch in a novel house. Unlike the other fraternities, they had no housemother. With their structure they boasted about receiving the national fraternity scholarship award for 21 successive quarters. I was not sure how well I fit with such a group. Dress during the evening meal was formal requiring a coat, dress shirt and tie. Study hours after dinner were strictly enforced. Sixty members and pledges lived in the house with a few more living in local apartments. On drill day all Navy students were required to dress in full uniform. I discovered eight of the brothers were also members of the Navy Unit. Five of the eight were in my pledge class, which helped me feel right at home.
One of the navy pledges, Wayne Annala, asked the house president for a definition of a dress shirt, presumably to make sure he complied with the dinner dress code. At the next evening meal he arrived with his white “dress shirt”. It consisted of a collar attached to a left shirt pocket, and two detached cuffs on his wrists. The balance of the shirt under his dinner jacket, not required by definition, was missing, having been cut away with scissors. As one might predict, Wayne became a lawyer, and plied his trade for several decades as the County Attorney in Hood River. By some quirk or skullduggery, Wayne also managed to avoid commissioning in the Navy, and never served a day.
One of the nations first panty raids was held about a block from the fraternity. Several of the brothers were active participants. This may have been a prelude to tailhook, but the girls appeared to be eager participants in the activities. Panty raids preceded streaking, which peaked in the 1960s. Exactly what all might happen during such a raid is speculative. The apparent climax occurred when some guy would lean out of an upstairs dorm or sorority window waving the girls’ underwear, or throw them down to his friends waiting below. All the guys cheered as though they had achieved something of consequence. I had a totally different notion as I watched from outside the sorority. Coming from the great farmland, entering someone’s home uninvited is worse than trespassing, and folks have been shot for less. Once inside, to continue into their bedrooms, closets and dressers uninvited is at best a serious invasion of ones privacy. I may be a prude, but I prefer not being shot.
Later in my freshman year one of our members asked me to join him as a houseboy for the Delta Zeta sorority, about a block from our house. Houseboys were primarily mealtime assistants who set the tables, served the food, and waited on the girls mealtime needs. We worked breakfast, lunch, and dinner. After each meal we cleared the tables, straightened up the dining room, washed the dishes, cleaned up the kitchen, and left. In exchange for this service, we were paid $15.00 a week, plus all the food we could eat. A collateral benefit was the up-close and personal contact with all the sorority girls. Those who were available, interested, and looking, managed to hang around the dining room and kitchen before and after meals. This experience was the triple crown of college life at Oregon State and continued for two exemplary years.
An annual highlight at the fraternity was the Fireman’s Ball. It was a spectacular weekend during which the house was totally renovated for a party and dance. The furniture was moved to the perimeter of the rooms. A three story tailored slide was assembled outside of the house. After two stories of descent outdoors, the slide entered a living room window, merging with the floor. The carpets were removed and the floors were polished like glass. Each guy with his date would walk to the third floor, go through the window and up several more steps to the top of the slide. At the top of the slide they would spread a blanket, select some position for the slide, and let go. At the top was pure acceleration. At the lower end each couple would emerge from the slide onto the floor and swoosh through the living room, hallway, and dining room. With a good slide one could make it through the kitchen door. It was a magnificent ride, and at least one picture was taken of each couple, clad in their pajamas, as they came off the end of the slide into the living room. Some of the pictures were priceless. The sliding and dancing continued into the wee-hours of the morning. The picture shows our first run as we emerged from the mouth of the dragon. My slight smile and the arms wrapped around my chest are parts of the experience. The expression on my date’s face says it all.
The freshman year passed without incident. I changed majors only once, and made grades sufficient to be initiated into the brotherhood. As is characteristic of Corvallis in the spring, the drizzle stopped. With the end of spring quarter, it was time to return to western Kansas, and prepare for my first cruise with the Navy. My orders were to report to the USS Wisconsin, an Iowa class battleship, in Norfolk in three weeks. I was ready.